Prayer flags carrying blessings from gods and spirits – Collection of Museum

Prayer flags carrying blessings from gods and spirits – Collection of Museum

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"Buddhist Windhorse Banner", 18th century, kept in the British Museum


"Buddhist Prayer Flags," 19th century, American Museum of Natural History


"Buddhist Prayer Flag", 19th century, private collection


"Buddhist Prayer Flag" 19th century, housed in the British Museum


"Buddhist Prayer Flag" ,19th century, private collection


"Buddhist Prayer Flag" ,19th century, private collection


"Benzene Teaching Wind Horse Flag", 20th century, private collection


"Buddhist Windhorse Banner: Ten Appearances of Freedom," 19th century, Private Collection


"Buddhist Prayer Flag: Auspicious Elements", 19th century, Private Collection


As Hugh Edward Richardson wrote in his biography, "The commemorative flags symbolize the relationship between the people here and the universe, and my guides seem to take great pleasure in seeing these prints of the Himalayas." When we talk about prayer flags, some spatial fields and bodily philosophies that transcend the objects themselves also come into view from hidden places.


The Meaning of Wind Horse Flag


In the Tibetan language, the commonly used term for referring to the Wind Horse flag is "རླུང་རྟ་" which has been translated into Chinese as "风马旗". However, upon further exploration of the deeper meaning of the Wind Horse flag, we may discover that this commonly used Tibetan term is just the surface representation of the concept. It combines the original meaning with the rich visual characteristics (the central horse and the four mythical creatures in the corners).


In more literature, the Tibetan word for prayer flag is "ཀླུང་རྟ་", where the first word "ཀླུང་" (klung) cannot be understood as another way of writing "wind", nor is it just a term for the "wind element" in the five elements. "ཀླུང་" in earlier indigenous religious literature roughly refers to a certain area (such as a river or cultivated land), or more precisely, it should be a collection of something (a river is a collection of water, cultivated land is a collection of soil). And the term "རྟ་" that people traditionally understand, also initially did not refer to the biological horse in the beginning.


The Flag of Benzeneism," 20th century, private collection


The word "རྟ་" has a very rich meaning in Tibetan, including not only the common meaning of horse but also meanings related to tone and pharmaceutical adjuvants. The magical aspect of Tibetan vocabulary lies in the fact that based on a central meaning, other meanings of the same word can also be expressed within the explanatory system of the central word. For example, in the Tibetan word for prayer flag, "རྟ་", the meaning explained in the literature is "means or tools" (such as pharmaceutical adjuvants "སྨན་རྟ་" and business assistance mentioned in some Bon texts "ལས་རྟ་"); however, in later developments, the relationship between the celestial horse and the flow of sound led to the meaning of melody, and the animal image of the horse itself was also incorporated into the woodblock of the prayer flags (details can be found in the writings of historian Professor Namkha Norbu).


Wind horse flag and elements


In this way, the meaning of the wind horse flag becomes much clearer. It is no longer just a flag drifting in the wind with a horse at its center, but a means of helping a collection obtain assistance. So what is this collection? The answer is a collection of elements, the field of elements. If we want to understand why elements were so important to early Snowland ancestors, we must understand the traditional astronomical system centered around elements.


"Buddhist Windhorse Flag Woodblock Print", 19th century, housed at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York


"Buddhist Windhorse Flag Woodblock Print", 19th century, housed at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York


According to the traditional scriptures of the Benzene religion, the complete interpretation of elemental astrology can be traced back to its spiritual patriarch and founder, Donba Xinrao. When Donba Xinrao's son, the master of elemental astrology, Segong Chuqiong, asked his father about the way of elemental astrology, Donba Xinrao said: objects are made up of particles, and what causes the particles to act within the object is the elements.


The different functions of the elements roughly fall into four categories - earth, water, fire, and wind. The earth element shapes all things, the water element gathers energy in one place, the fire element brings fruition to all things, and the wind element promotes the growth and circulation of all things. Overall, the elements are in harmony with each other and develop according to a natural law. However, negative reactions can occur between elements, and as they develop according to the law, objects will eventually perish.


"Buddhist Windhorse Flag", 18th century, housed in the Field Natural History Museum


"Flag with Buddhist motifs" dating from the 18th century, housed at the Field Museum of Natural History


And when asked about the operation of elemental astrology, Dunbar Rinpoche mentioned that by understanding the relationship between the external world and the positions of the twelve months, four seasons, and constellations, one can further comprehend the changes in the universe, which are governed by laws. These laws help people understand the relationship between external events like agriculture and animal husbandry and the changes in elemental forces in the internal world (positive or negative changes). This understanding can then guide individuals in finding suitable elemental healing and nurturing methods for themselves.


Of course, we can consider this explanation about the origins of astronomical knowledge to have strong historical characteristics (a mythical mode from a certain historical narrative), but at the very least, we can understand the importance of celestial elements in Tibetan people's lives, and therefore understand why the Wind Horse flag was created and how it developed.


"Buddhist Prayer Flag", 20th century, private collection


"Buddhist Windhorse Prayer Flags Woodblock Print", 19th century, housed at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York


How to see the wind horse flag?


Even if we have figured out the relationship between the Five Elements Theory and the Wind Horse Flag, there are still two more questions that need to be addressed: why are there five elements in the combination of elements in the Wind Horse Flag? And how do the five elements manifest themselves in the image?


In elemental astrology, there are five elements: "earth, water, fire, wind, and space" (Sa, Chu, Me, Lung, Namka; "space" refers to both the sky and emptiness). In star astrology, there are five elements: "wood, fire, earth, iron, and water" (Shingme, Sa, Chaktsu, Chu). The order cannot be changed, and the arrangement of gold, wood, water, fire, and earth does not belong to the Himalayan region's astrology system. However, in the Wind Horse Flag, these two sets of elements are combined, showing both the internal harmony and chaos of the elements in elemental astrology and the connection of the elements with the external world in star astrology.


"Four Beasts", 19th century, private collection


"The Snow Lion", 20th century, housed in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York


"The Great Peng", 20th century, housed in the Ruben Museum of Art in New York City


"The Tiger," 20th century, housed in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York


"The Dragon," 20th century, housed at the Rubin Museum in New York


The five animals in the Wind Horse Flag represent an interesting symbolic system. They are both a concrete expression of a certain region (the four directions and the center: from the literature of the Tubo period, people at that time had a unique view of the four directions) and also correspond to the five elements: the tiger symbolizes the element of space or wood (the tiger in the forest represents the vitality of the universe), the snow lion symbolizes the element of earth (moving in the mountains and forests), the great bird (whether it is the Bon religion's "qiong" bird or the Buddhist golden-winged bird, they are associated with fierceness) symbolizes the element of fire, the dragon or dragon clan symbolizes the element of water (a divine group living in the water), and the horse symbolizes the element of wind (the mountain god's mount with thirty-two virtues, galloping in the sky). As for the colors of the fabric of the Wind Horse Flag (བྲི་ཐབས་) itself, blue represents the wood element, green represents the fire element, red represents the earth element, yellow represents the iron element, and white represents the water element.


"The Tree of Life", 19th century, housed at the Rubin Museum in New York


Scene: The snow lion and dragon, and the mythical bird between them


Partial: Tigers and yaks and the cosmic destiny frog between them


Local: Deities and Tibetan alphabet


It is important to note that the five animals on the Wind Horse flag are not always fixed. In some earlier versions of the Bon religion Wind Horse flag, the five animals included the white yak, without the snow lion or tiger. According to one mythological interpretation based on the five animals, they symbolize the world creator king (སྲིད་པ་ཡེ་སྨོན་རྒྱལ་པོ་) and the world creator queen (སྲིད་པ་ཡེ་སྨོན་རྒྱལ་མོ་)'s five children (ཀླུང་རྟ་སྤུན་ལྔ་). This interpretation has also been expanded to the five animals on the Wind Horse flag representing the totems of the five major early Tibetan clans.


"The Weimar Gods", 19th century, housed at the Shelley & Donald Rubin


Local: Snow lion and dragon


Locale: The tiger and the white yak, along with the secret gateway between them


Local: The War God with the Arrow


Local: The god of iron-making at home


As a result of the symbiotic relationships between the elements, one element assists another. The wood element is assisted by the water element, their relationship harmonizes water areas; the fire element is assisted by the wood element, their relationship leads to success in all endeavors; the earth element is assisted by the fire element, their relationship enhances strength; the iron element is assisted by the earth element, their relationship ensures smooth political affairs; the water element is assisted by the iron element, their relationship brings wealth and power. Through the combination of animal motifs and colors, the concept of elements embodied in the prayer flags is fully displayed.


Prayer flags in religious interpretation


Aside from the concept behind the Wind Horse flag, according to some religious interpretations, the function and form of the Wind Horse flag have different meanings. In Bon and early beliefs, the Wind Horse flag helps with "destiny-body-fortune", soothing the various spirits moving through the blood vessels of the body. In Buddhism, the Wind Horse flag helps with "body-speech-mind" (also known as the three gates in Buddhism). In terms of form, Bon rarely uses images other than animals to fill the scene, while Buddhist Wind Horse flags often feature the image of deities or high-ranking monks at the center of the image; and in the emptiness of the Buddhist Wind Horse flag, there are often repeated Buddhist mantras.

"Buddhist Prayer Flag: Lotus Blossom" 19th century, private collection


"Benzene Teaching Wind Horse Flag: Dunbasin Rao"19th century, private collection


"Auspicious top arm strict mother wind horse flag", 19th century, Private Collection


"Canopy Arm Vajrayogini" Mongolian region, 19th century, private collection


Unique to the Buddhist Tantric tradition is the symbol of the Victory Banner adorned with the fierce goddess Dvajagrakeyura. This female deity emanates from the radiant light atop the Buddha's head and represents the embodiment of mantra, used in Tantric practices to maintain virtuous qualities. The fusion of mantra worship and the indigenous tradition of the Victory Banner creates a sacred space for Buddhist practitioners.


"Dorje Yab-Yum Thangka," Tibet region, 20th century, private collection


"Pagodas, Roof Arms, Rigorous Buddhas, Mothers, Wind Horses, and Flags" - 19th century, Private Collection


"Chap of fierce deity Vajrayogini, 19th century, housed in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York"


As for the Wind Horse Flag ceremony, although there are different opinions, it basically follows the following steps: [1]: Human request - [2]: Horses summon the elemental wind (འབྱུང་བའི་རླུང་ཆེན་) - [3]: The elemental wind conveys the message to different objects of desire (ཕྱོགས་ལ་བསྟན་པ་) - [4]: People call out (བོན་དང་བསྭོ་) to the spirits - [5]: The spirits give feedback (བཀྲ་སྦྱིན་པ་). This ceremony can take place at mountain passes, water edges, or tree branches, provided that the location is a gathering place of the elements.


"Gesar Windhorse Flag" - 20th century, modern commodity


"The Flag of the Benzene Teachings", 19th century, private collection

Beware not only of Tibetan mantras around you, but also of what later generations call the elephant seal script.


There are many things we can say about the prayer flags, but as long as we believe in the ever-changing elements and the romantic concept of the body behind them, there will surely be blessings from the gods where the prayer flags flutter. Please believe me, those blessings exist sincerely, and the horses still gallop in the clouds.


"The Good Horse Treasure", 19th century, private collection

The Pegasus carries our vision and races towards the distance


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.


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